The founder of Brainpickings.com talks about why she won't give advertisers access to her 1.2 million online readers.
You describe yourself as a “curator of interestingness” and run a website from New York called Brain Pickings, which covers all things curious and inspiring – books, art, science, photographs etc. What’s the common denominator for publishing something?
If something interests me and is both timeless and timely, I write about it. Much of what is published online is content designed to be dead within hours, so I find most of my material offline. I gravitate more and more towards historical things that are somewhat obscure and yet timely in their sensibility and message. We really need an antidote to this culture of “if it’s not Google-able, it doesn’t exist”. There’s a wealth of knowledge and inspiration offline, ideas still very relevant and interesting.
With 1.2 million readers a month and 3m page views, your site would be a good place to advertise, but, instead, you ask readers for voluntary contributions. What have you got against advertising?
There’s a really beautiful letter that a newspaper journalist named Bruce Bliven wrote in 1923 to his editor. It was about how the circulation manager had taken over the newspaper, deciding what went on the front page. Today, search engine optimisation is the “circulation management” of the internet. It doesn’t put the reader’s best interests first – it turns them into a sellable eyeball, and sells that to advertisers. As soon as you begin to treat your stakeholder as a bargaining chip, you’re not interested in broadening their intellectual horizons or bettering their life. I don’t believe in this model of making people into currency. You become accountable to advertisers, rather than your reader.
Why do people pay for what they can get for free?
Part of it is that people form an emotional relationship with the site and have a sense of belonging and take pride in being able to support something they enjoy. It’s the same reason people have been donating to public libraries for centuries. But the question of altruism is probably the oldest debate in the history of philosophy – whether we do something because it makes us feel good, or because we want to genuinely and selflessly contribute to something. I think it’s always a combination of the two.
Contribution-based podcasts and websites are becoming more common. Any ideas for how to increase donations?
I’ve not been very strategic about it: I come from eastern Europe, where we don’t really talk about money. I have an enormous aversion to asking for it; the whole notion of making a living based on other people’s contributions is still very uncomfortable for me. A friend of mine suggested recently that I should highlight more the recurring subscriptions I have; I started doing that two months ago, and the results have been heartening. I also have an email newsletter, which has grown a lot. The newsletter subscribers are by far the most generous donors – perhaps something to do with email being such an intimate means of engagement.
As someone making their living online, what changes do you see ahead for people like you?
It’s always hard to separate predictions from hopefulness. I’m hopeful that the model of micro-patronage will grow, and will help more people who are passionate about some subject to deliver it to an audience without having to be reliant on advertisers. Even today, for instance, Radiolab [a podcast produced by WNYC, a public radio station in New York City] is supported by audience contribution, and Longreads, which curates the best free long-form reading online, has paid memberships. In that case, the value people find is in the packaging of free content at the intersection of the editorial and the curatorial – that is the offering people are increasingly willing to pay for, and I’m hoping to see more of that.
What does your business model tell industries that have been hit hard by the internet – the music industry, for example, or newspapers?
The model of most media today is a replica of the golden age of newspapers – selling ad pages – which cannot transfer on to the internet without making any accommodation for the profound difference of that medium as a tool of engagement. It would be naive to say the fix is simply to replace the commercial motive with some sort of social-good motive, but the two need not be mutually exclusive. Still, many things need to change about how we fund media today before we can have a more organic convergence of the two – of something being both an industry and serving the public good, or the audience’s best interest.
The UN failed in their bid to have the internet regulated this month. Is their failure welcome?
I don’t believe complete anarchy is the solution to anything, but what troubles me about regulating the web – or, for that matter, regulating other aspects of society, like immigration – is the assumption that, if there were no rules, a greater number of people would perpetrate evil than would do good. That is a tragic assumption by which to govern humanity.
What are the best and worst things the internet has brought out in us?
I worry about the temporal bias of the web – everything online is based around vertical chronology. The latest stuff floats at the top, and the older stuff sinks towards the bottom. It suggests that just because something is more recent, it’s more relevant; yet, in culture, the best ideas are timeless, they have no expiration date. This makes the internet a tricky medium for organising information and prioritising knowledge. The best thing is the obvious thing – the remarkable access to nearly infinite information. It is my hope that, as we find better ways to transmute that information into knowledge and wisdom, we’ll be better able to ameliorate the former with the latter.
What magazines and websites do you read?
I used to read magazines more, but now I get the equivalent of that content online, including on the sites of traditional magazines and newspapers. But I spend the greatest deal of time reading books, often old, out-of-print ones. I do like Longreads, and I listen to podcasts a lot. Design Matters by Debbie Millman, and Radiolab for science, and Philosophy Bites by Nigel Warburton. I have lost faith in magazines, though. Part of it is that they’re struggling and have to sell ad pages, and the content suffers because of that.
What were you like as a child? Were you one of those precocious kids who could beat their parents at chess at the age of 4?
I always went to very competitive schools, and I was an incredible perfectionist. I remember in the fourth grade, I got an A- in history, and I went up to the teacher and asked how I could make a correction to get it up to an A. I’m still mortified! Over the years I’ve learned to mediate that senseless perfectionism.
Describe a typical day.
I get up, schedule some of my tweets and head to the gym, where I do a lot of my longform reading, on the elliptical machine. It helps me concentrate. For a long time I thought I was eccentric, but then I came across this 1942 book called An Anatomy Of Inspiration by Rosamund Harding. She goes through the diaries of famous writers, scientists and musicians, and looks at how good ideas come to them. A lot of them describe this connection between motion and creativity.
So you do believe mental and physical exercise are related?
I do. Not in the obvious sense of fit mind equals a fit body. I’m less able to sit still and read because my mind goes elsewhere, but, as soon as my body is occupied – and I work out pretty intensely – when I’m really on the brink of my physical endurance, I find my mind can’t get away from itself so much, and I’m better able to focus on the reading.
You spend 450 hours a month keeping your website alive: that’s a 15-hour day. How do you relax? What do you do for kicks?
People always talk about work/life balance, but I find that a tragic concept. I have no separation between work and my life. I don’t see what I do as work. There’s no greater joy than, as Richard Feynman put it, the pleasure of finding things out.